Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz met for more than six hours Wednesday in a tense diplomatic effort to avert war in the Persian Gulf. "Regrettably, I heard nothing today that suggested to me any Iraqi flexibility whatsoever," Baker said.
He said the meeting was to "communicate" and seek a political solution. He said Iraq, if it does not agree to withdraw from Kuwait, could be choosing a military confrontation in which it would be forcibly expelled."This is still a confrontation that Iraq can avoid," Baker said.
A U.N. deadline for Iraqi withdrawal is next Tuesday and Baker said, "The time for talk is running out."
His somber announcement quickly ended speculation that the length of the meeting was a sign of progress in ending the six-month crisis short of war. Unless Iraq changes its mind, Baker said, "Iraq will be choosing a military confrontation that it cannot win."
Baker said he did not hear "any new proposal" from Aziz, although he said Aziz did suggest more discussions.
Baker, in a brief statement after his face-off with Aziz, said he had telephoned President Bush to deliver the bad news.
With Tuesday's U.N. deadline fast approaching, Baker said, "Now the choice lies with the Iraqi leadership. Let us all hope that that leadership will have the wisdom to choose peace. . . . Time is running on."
Baker, looking weary as he answered questions from reporters at the Geneva hotel at which he met Aziz, said he hoped other diplomatic efforts would persuade Iraq to quit Kuwait. European leaders have expressed a hope they can talk to Baghdad before the Jan. 15 deadline.
Baker said Aziz raised anew Saddam Hussein's demand that any discussions of a pullout from Kuwait be linked to a broader discussion of Middle East issues including the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the secretary of state said he dismissed that argument.
"I don't think many people believe Iraq invaded Kuwait to help the Palestinians," Baker said.
As for the next step, Baker raised the possibility of "seeking the use of the good offices" of the United Nations secretary general for further diplomacy but ruled out a personal visit to Baghdad for a meeting with Saddam.
The world was watching the Baker-Aziz meeting for some sign the impasse could be broken. Baker's pessimistic tone was sure to dash hopes for a peaceful resolution before Tuesday's deadline, but he was careful not to slam the door shut.
"This is still a confrontation which the Iraqi people can avoid," Baker said. "So let us hope that Iraq does not miscalculate again."
At the meeting, Baker tried to present Aziz with a letter from Bush to Saddam in which Bush spelled out what he said would be devastating consequences for Iraq in a war with the U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf, but Aziz would not accept the letter.
The length of the discussion had seemed like a tantalizing signal that the United States and Iraq might be exploring new ground to break their impasse over Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait. But Baker indicated later it was simply a process of both sides hearing the other side out.
Eyebrows were raised when Algeria's foreign minister appeared in Geneva during the Baker-Aziz face-off. His mission was unclear, but Algeria has been trying to mediate the gulf crisis.
The Baker-Aziz meeting was the first between top officials of the United States and Iraq since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion and came just days before next Tuesday's United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw. Baker's discussions with Aziz put an end, at least for the day, to the long-distance snarling that has erupted with the Middle East on the verge of war.
Just before the final segment began, Baker said the second break, which lasted less than 15 minutes, was called because "We've been at it for quite a few hours. Everybody wanted to wash their hands."
There was one report that Iraq was offering a gradual withdrawal from Kuwait in return for access to two islands that would give Iraq a gulf port.
The Geneva discussions had the attention of the world. Oil prices at first climbed and then fell as the meetings continued. But preparations for war continued as well.
In other developments:
- Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent a message to Saddam, Tass news agency reported Wednesday. A foreign ministry statement quoted by Tass gave no details of what the message said.
- The Pentagon said the Army had ordered to active duty 3,609 reserve members and the Marine Corps had summoned 802 as part of the Persian Gulf deployment. The call-up announced Tuesday raises the total of reserve personnel activated as part of Operation Desert Shield to 151,711. All have been activated in support of the operation, but not all have been sent to the Persian Gulf, said Maj. Doug Hart, a Pentagon spokesman.
- Israel's military was on heightened alert, and Foreign Minister David Levy said Israel would respond forcefully to any Iraqi attack on the Jewish state even if it would hurt the U.S.-led coalition forces in Saudi Arabia. Levy's comments came a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quoted as threatening to withdraw from the coalition if Israel entered hostilities.
- Embarrassed Pentagon officials have retreated from a report which originated in Saudi Arabia that six Iraqi helicopter pilots had defected with their aircraft to the desert kingdom.
Less than 24 hours after announcing the defections, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said he was unable to confirm or deny the report.
"The initial reports that we had last night from the Saudis indicated that they had in fact come over and landed.," Williams said. "Now, today, the Saudis are saying those reports are inaccurate."